Following NFL Trends is crucial to building a dynasty.
By Erik Siegrist
This article is part of our fantasy football help series.
No matter the fantasy league, the basic goal remains the same: assemble a roster that can outscore everyone else's. Finding players who can outproduce their draft slot or auction salary remains the easiest path to that goal, and as a result the preseason is full of sleeper lists and value plays as owners chase those elusive bargains.
Assembling rosters in keeper or dynasty leagues presents the added wrinkle of having to consider a player's value not just in the current season but multiple seasons down the road. Balancing short-term needs with longer-term investments is far more art than science, but it's important not to lose sight of the now, even though it's tempting to focus on the future in an attempt to build a true dynasty. When acquiring players in keeper formats, it's easy to get caught up in chasing buzzy draft picks at the expense of staid, stable veterans.
However, current trends in the NFL point to some clear areas where it makes sense to focus on hoarding youth, and others where you might be better off letting your opponents bid against each other for shiny new toys that only offer marginal potential gains. Here's a look at the fantasy landscape, skill position by skill position, with some suggestions on how to approach each from a talent-acquisition perspective.
When it comes to quarterbacks, the perception is that it is increasingly an old man's game. Tom Brady is still hoisting Lombardi Trophies, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are still putting up dominant stats and few young QBs seem capable of breaking into that top tier of reliable fantasy starters. Is that perception necessarily true, though?
Only three quarterbacks – Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck – finished top 10 in fantasy points per game each of the last three seasons. Six more recorded top-10 finishes in two of those three years – Rodgers, Brady, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Eli Manning.
On the surface, the list seems to reinforce the idea that veterans still rule the field. Of those nine quarterbacks who produced multiple top-10 finishes, only three are younger than 30: Luck (27), Newton (28) and Wilson (28). Four are already 35 or older: Brady (40), Brees (38), Manning (36) and Roethlisberger (35). From a dynasty perspective, these are problematic lists. No one wants to count on an old player as a core member of his roster, and of the younger set, Luck's had trouble staying on the field, missing 10 games the last two seasons.
That would seem to leave just Newton and Wilson as established QBs who can consistently provide starter-level production while also being young and presumably healthy enough that they can be trusted to keep doing it for a number of seasons. With a small pool of players to compete for, there's good reason not to invest too heavily in the position and just use short-term rentals at quarterback.
The presence of a small group of consistent producers also makes it tempting to look for the next member of that group, though. Kirk Cousins (29) and Derek Carr (26) managed top-12 finishes in 2016, and both received significant offseason upgrades to their supporting casts. Dak Prescott (24) made the cut as a rookie at the helm of a top-five offense in Dallas. There's also reason for optimism with young signal callers like Jameis Winston (23), Carson Wentz (24) and Marcus Mariota (23). Should any of those QBs take another step forward, securing their services now while their salaries are still reasonable could provide a tremendous return on investment.
For years now, the standard fantasy advice in any league has been to take advantage of the depth at quarterback by not investing too heavily. In the current landscape, that strategy has never seemed more sound. Securing a possible breakout quarterback at a modest price makes sense if you can manage it, but if dynasty price pressures push the salaries on an up-and-comer too high, just let him go and move on to the next potential breakout on your list — or forego rostering a "developmental" quarterback at all.
RUNNING BACK STRATEGY
Until a few seasons ago, the foundation of any fantasy football roster was its running backs. Top backs flew off the board in the first round, and they provided the engine of production that drove nearly every title-bound team. As the NFL has become more pass-happy, wide receivers have become that engine instead, but the desire to find an elite RB to build around remains ingrained in many fantasy GMs.
The problem is, there are a vanishingly small number of running backs worth building around. In the current NFL, few teams rely on only one. The combination of role specialization and frequent injuries at the position has pushed front offices to assemble backfield committees and spread touches. In 2016, only seven running backs played at least 12 games and averaged at least 20 touches a game: Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Melvin Gordon, DeMarco Murray, Lamar Miller and Todd Gurley. That's still a marked improvement on 2015, when only four running backs hit those marks (Devonta Freeman, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte and Doug Martin), and from 2014 when five backs achieved the feat (Murray, Bell, Forte, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy). By contrast, a decade ago in 2007, 13 backs received 20 or more touches a game for at least three-quarters of the schedule.
While fewer backs are dominating their team's touches, there has not been a resulting increase in the depth of the player pool from a fantasy perspective. In 2007, 22 running backs averaged at least 10 fantasy points a game and played at least 12 games. In 2016? Once again, 22 backs hit those marks, while only 19 did in 2015.
With so few running backs receiving a large workload in any single season, much less receiving that workload consistently year to year, dynasty league GMs are faced with a dilemma similar to the situation at quarterback. Do they spend big at the position chasing after one of the perceived studs – or even a player with the potential to become one of those bell cows – or do they save resources and rely on the depth of the player pool to fill their rosters at the position?
The lack of viable options in comparison to a decade ago changes the calculus. Teams that can roster one of those every-down backs at a reasonable price have a large competitive advantage. For that reason, despite the de-emphasis on RB scoring in general, it has become even more important to land a top back, if possible, in dynasty leagues. Teams that secure an Elliott or Johnson at a below-market price have a head start toward their league title that is even larger than it appears at first glance. Elite running backs have become the single rarest commodity in fantasy football, and for that reason GMs should do everything possible to find one. Even if you choose not to pay market price for an established three-down stud, it's almost a necessity to reserve at least a couple roster spots for RB lottery tickets who might develop into three-down backs, as the payout will be huge if one hits.
Despite the conventional wisdom that productive running backs can come from anywhere, the best place to look for a young potential bell cow is the early stages of the NFL Draft. Of the 13 backs in the last three seasons who met the 20-touch/12 game-threshold, eight were drafted in the first two rounds, and only three were plucked after Round 3 (Miller and Freeman, both taken in the fourth round of their drafts, and the undrafted Foster). This makes sense. While organizations are dedicating fewer resources to their backfields in general, those that do decide to invest significant draft capital in the position will want to maximize their return on that investment, especially considering the uncertainty that the player will be worth a second NFL contract. With that in mind, the rookie running backs to target in hopes of finding a foundation piece for future championship teams include not only obvious choices like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, but also less heralded third-round selections such as Kareem Hunt, James Conner, Alvin Kamara and D'Onta Foreman – all of whom could be just one injury away from taking on starring roles as rookies.
WIDE RECEIVER STRATEGY
With strong arguments to be made against investing too many resources at quarterback or running back, the obvious place to spend auction dollars and build the foundation of your roster is wide receiver. However, there is an important issue to keep in mind when targeting young receivers, and that's their slower development time.
While a back can hit the ground running and be a fantasy asset from his first game, rookie wideouts tend to struggle, even if they enter the league as highly touted prospects. From 2012 to 2016, 43 wide receivers were drafted in the first two rounds. Only five (Michael Thomas, Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Kelvin Benjamin) topped 1,000 receiving yards as rookies, good for an 11.6 percent hit rate when it comes to immediate returns using that particular milestone.
The hit rate jumps to 30.6 percent, 11 of 36, when looking at the second-year production of the group, with the seven wide receivers drafted in 2016 yet to be heard from. As a whole, the group's yardage increased almost 20 percent in the second year, as the average early round WR had 501.9 yards as a rookie and 601 yards in his second campaign. Curiously, that growth comes almost entirely from the first-round receivers in the group. The 18 first-round picks taken from 2012 to 2015 saw their average yardage increase from 538.1 yards in Year 1 to 712.1 yards in Year 2 – a 32.3 percent jump. The 18 second-round WRs averaged 464.0 yards as rookies and only 489.9 yards in their sophomore campaigns – a mere 5.6 percent increase.
To parse the data another way, 14 of 18 first-round receivers saw their yardage production increase in their second years – and one of the four exceptions was Benjamin, who missed his entire second season with a knee injury. Even with the nearly flat group output increase, 11 of 18 second-round WRs also saw their yardage increase in Year 2.
Given that history, 2016 draft picks such as Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd look like strong investments, and if Thomas' owners think he can't top last year's production and look to "sell high," they may come to regret it.
On the other hand, if you choose to invest in 2017 early round wide receivers such as Corey Davis, John Ross, Zay Jones or Juju Smith-Schuster, be prepared to stick with them for the long haul. In a keeper league, there's no worse feeling than the one that comes with picking up a player as a future building block only to cut him loose the season before he breaks out.
TIGHT END STRATEGY
Conventional wisdom suggests that tight end ranks only above kicker and defense in priority when it comes to assembling a fantasy roster. There are studs who are worth pursuing, but much like at QB, if you don't land one of the elite, the differences between the options in the rest of the player pool are so minor that they are all essentially fungible, and one is as good as the next. What that view overlooks is the evolution of the position in recent years.
In the early 2000s, tight ends who hauled in 60 catches or topped 600 receiving yards in a season were rare. In 2003, for instance, only two caught 60-plus passes and only three managed 600-plus yards. Even scoring a half-dozen TDs was noteworthy. In this environment, Tony Gonzalez's 2000 campaign deserves more consideration when discussing the greatest fantasy seasons of all time, given his 93 catches (second had 71), 1,203 yards (second, 810) and nine TDs (second, 5). Gonzalez's massive 2000 campaign aside, a tight end putting up the numbers normally associated with the best wide receivers, such as 1,000 yards or double-digit scores, was unheard of.
That gradually began to change through the decade once Antonio Gates arrived and showed NFL front offices the value of an extremely athletic receiver at the position. By 2009, 10 TEs had caught 60 or more passes and 11 had hit 600 yards, while for the first time in league history multiple scored 10 or more TDs.
In recent years, those trends have become entrenched. Every season since 2013, at least 10 TEs have caught 60 or more passes and at least 13 have gained 600 or more yards. Tight ends reaching elite levels has also become, if not routine, then at least a regular occurrence since the 2011 season featured the Gronk and Graham Show, and 2015 saw four tight ends break 1,000 yards (Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Gary Barnidge). In fact, 2016 was the first year since 2006 that no tight end scored at least 10 TDs.
While the position as a whole has become a much more important part of NFL passing games, it's also seen plenty of churn and turnover. Much like at quarterback, tight end features a small group of players who consistently produce starter-quality numbers. Only three TEs (Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten) have topped 600 receiving yards each of the last four years, while three (Walker, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz) have hit the mark three consecutive seasons heading into 2017. Players like Gronkowski and Jordan Reed would be among those groups if not for injuries, but when you're looking for consistency, a checkered injury history doesn't help their case.
This leaves fantasy GMs in a familiar quandary: spend up to secure one of those consistent playmakers, or take your chances by playing the field and hoping to land a one-year wonder such as Barnidge? This year's extraordinary draft class, which saw three TEs go in the first round and six by the end of the third, also presents a tantalizing opportunity for dynasty GMs to get a future stud at a reasonable price before he establishes himself. That approach carries some hidden risk, however. Like wide receivers, tight ends can take time to develop. Hunter Henry is the only rookie to play at least 12 games and average at least 6.0 fantasy points a game the last five years. Often TEs don't fully blossom until their third seasons. With that in mind, 2016 draftees Austin Hooper and Tyler Higbee and 2015 draftees Jeff Heuerman, Jesse James, Maxx Williams and Clive Walford could provide an immediate impact and likely require smaller investments than heralded rookies O.J. Howard, David Njoku and Evan Engram.
Depending on how deep and competitive your dynasty league is, it's of course entirely possible to assemble a roster that includes a young developmental quarterback, a stud three-down running back supplemented by a couple of cheap lottery tickets and a fistful of young wide receivers and tight ends who are set to explode at the same time. That's the dream scenario of every keeper league GM.
But in the event your league-mates don't let you have every young player you want at a reasonable price, never forget the overriding maxim of all fantasy leagues: flags fly forever. Don't let the chance for a title this season slip through your fingers while you chase possible titles down the road.